Are You Captain of Your Destiny?

Returning to quickly skim my blog reader 1,000+ after two weeks’ head-in-the-sand, I see ‘Pownce acquired,’ and ‘Yahoo’s Chief of Insights Joins Bunchball.’ My spin radar immediately starts blipping, because I know that behind the ‘good news,’ guts are wrenching. Decisions are being made for people, and that never feels good. Yet another reminder that all the sacrifices may well be worth captaining your own destiny.

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Sustaining yourself with a small business doesn’t make headlines. Money-raising has been the mainstay of startup news since venture capital exploded on the scene in the ’80s. ‘Huffington Post Nabs $25M.’ And why not? It was validation that the company ‘has arrived.’ It was the Big Show. But ask any CEO what changes when investors step in. Everything.

No, they’re not (necessarily) evil. They’re just bound and determined to turn your company into a successful exit. It’s their job, in fact. It’s not about you, or even your technology.

Chances are, your primary mission is not to achieve successful exit. (If it is, you’re probably going to fail.) For most of you, it is about you — your passion for your technology, or your customers, or what you do.

If it sounds like that’s at odds with investors, well it often is.

So when Bunchball (the Silicon Valley company that applies gaming mechanics to making sites stickier) announces its new ex-Yahoo CEO, I hear a founder’s gut wrenching. When crafts-aggregator Etsy announces former NPR Digital head Maria Thomas taking the helm, I hear a gut wrenching.

Often from the outside, the decisions seem right. Geeky founders often don’t make the transition to leadership — ubergeek Bill Gates is an exception — and Heidrick & Struggles and CTPartners (formerly Christian & Timbers) and the like make a lot of money plucking SVPs out of big companies and placing them in VC-funded startups. (The genealogy of silly titles can actually be traced back to CEOs being made to step down — where do you think Chief Product Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, Chief of Insights, and other staff titles came from?) But then, investors aren’t all-wise. Gross blunders are made at the highest levels. (Remember when Pepsi head Sculley was brought in to run Apple? Not to mention Gil Amelio . . .)

There’s really only one way to avoid decisions in your company being made for you: captain your own destiny.

That usually means going slow, growing customer by customer, often staying small. If you want to go ‘big’ — and not everyone does — you’re most likely to find yourself at the investment/management crossroads. As an ambitious technologist/hard-core developer, you might decide to bring in someone to run the business. (Hey, it happens — sometimes founders themselves honestly recognize the need for new leadership.) That bespeaks true wisdom on the part of tech founders. Eric Schmidt’s install at Google was a coup — not a coup d’etat.

In his blog post, ‘10 Tips for Building a Profitable Business,’ Dogster CEO Ted Rheingold’s entreated:

So constantly ask yourself, are we spending 50% of our time selling? I bet you’ll always realize you’re focusing too much on the product and not enough on finding customers that want it.

Any of us who’ve consulted know that hard truth: love doing the work, hate hustling to get it. If that’s you, and you find yourself running a company, you either need to embrace being the CEO (read: chief salesman) and quit coding, or find someone who’s a good complement to you to do that job and leave you to program (or design, or write, or do whatever it is that you really do best.)

Once you’ve piloted your ship (to belabor the metaphor) past the shoals into the smooth waters of profitability and solvency, and feel the need to raise cash, get big, and pull away from your competition, the dynamics of a deal with a VC changes radically — you get the money on your terms. Still el capitan!

I’ve observed a lot of folks in charge of their destiny lately. (In the month of November, 533,000 who were not, had their ships sunk for them — so much for job security.) Software, the Interwebs, automatic ads, SEO, and (yes) social networking have made it a greater possibility than ever — unlike the previous waves of semiconductors, PCs, and computer networking. It’s akin to the artisans of the Renaissance — with skills, there’s always work. Entrepreneurs today can be captains of their destiny.

And I truly admire you folks. The ones scrapping it out, making a living, while they build their business, serve their customers, and develop a following. Those of you who eat, drink, and sleep (not much) your startups.

Remind yourself this at the end of your crappiest days: You’re the one making the decisions. Go make some really tough ones.

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